I feel, therefore I can be free

I traveled to Peru for two months. I knew that the time had come for me to travel to South America. And I knew that I only had two months, so I would probably only choose to travel one country. I chose Peru for many reasons. The history, pre-Columbian / pre-Incan / Incan, fascinates me; the majority of the population is POC; an indigenous president was elected for the first time this century; there is an Afro-Peruvian population, albeit only a small fraction of the general population, and so on.

At the same time, South America’s colonial history and that lingering legacy is highly problematic. From my point of view based on things I have read, friends from the region and now my own personal experience, there seems to have been great emphasis on a decolonization of the “land”, but a process of decolonizing the mind has yet to follow. I kept a travelogue at a different link but chose to keep that light and left out most of the racist and sexist incidents with which I was confronted throughout my trip. It is important to me, however, to document at least some of them. So I’ve decided to do that here. Rather than listing them in some trivial and analytical way, I’ve decided to only use some that were representative of my personal experience, irrespective of what part of the country I was in.

“Oppressors always expect the oppressed to extend to them the understanding so lacking in themselves.”

1. Many European and North American tourists travel to South America and want to take pictures of “the natives”. We live in a capitalist world, in which people are constantly looking for a way to make that paper. “The natives” have recognized the market for picture taking and, in some of the main tourist cities, use traditional dress and animals to make money by charging for their picture to be taken. And tourists who find the practice appealing happily oblige and pay a small fee. However, there are some (typically hard-to-reach) places where “the natives” do not want to be photographed and make that known. And the highly entitled tourists find themselves disgruntled by the fact that they are being prohibited in their right to invade other people’s private sphere. They then proceed to complain loudly about it, any chance that they get. It does not matter that these places are even described in travel guides as not welcoming to such tourism, the entitlement trumps all other feelings.

“Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to educate men as to our existence and our needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns. Now we hear that it is the task of women of color to educate white women – in the face of tremendous resistance – as to our existence, our differences, our relative roles in our joint survival. This is a diversion of energies and a tragic repetition of racist patriarchal thought.”

2. As many Europeans and North Americans like to point out, machismo is alive and well in South America. And that is true. What many neglect to mention is that many European and North American men are happy to partake in that culture when given the opportunity (and not only in SA). In Cuzco I observed a very drunk British man harass a Peruvian woman of color. I stayed close to the sidelines but chose to wait to see if the woman needed support. The story became clear in very little time. Drunk man wanted to take beautiful “native” woman home to conquer. She was not interested and declined. Drunk man would not accept no, and instead went on to insult her with the following belligerent monologue: I don’t believe that you don’t want to go home with me. You know what I think. I think you are actually married, you have a child, and you’re  just out here being a slut tonight. At this point I was ready to engage, but the Peruvian woc made eye contact with me and smiled. She was going to handle things differently. She escorted him back up to his hotel, stayed there for perhaps two to three minutes (I couldn’t see this part), and then came running down the street, waving at me as she passed and disappeared. Drunk man couldn’t walk a straight line, making running even more difficult, and was lost almost immediately. So his night ended.

3. I stayed at a community house that offers intentional long-term stays for travelers. Courses in yoga, meditation, dance etc. were offered on a daily basis. The majority of these travelers were women and, with the exception of myself and one other person, white women. All of the classes were taught by white women from North America, Europe and Australia, with the exception of my classes and two other dance/yoga classes. The house had typical community rules for cleaning up behind oneself, but the place just doesn’t stay clean without the support of a cleaner. The cleaner was a “native”. A beautiful Peruvian woc with a huge heart and a warm smile. She befriended me on my first day already, even though my Spanish was weak and my inhibition to speak high. She understood my situation and I understood hers. Little did most of these women know, “the native” owned her own shop and did not struggle financially in the way that most of them assumed (why else would a person clean?). The white women demanded to know why “the native” could touch my hair and they couldn’t; how we could be so close and understand each other without exchanging many words; why this circle couldn’t be expanded. We never bothered to give them answers, because we knew that no answer exists that they could or would ever accept.

“What other human being absorbs so much virulent hostility and still functions?”

4. I traveled alone through Peru, my preferred way to travel, and as a solo woman traveler, a solo Black woman traveler, I heard it all, the good and the bad. Most Peruvians assumed I was from Colombia, before and after hearing me speak. I must assume that Colombia is the go-to choice for Black skin in South America. Interestingly, I met Colombians along the way who also presumed that I might be from Colombia. Peruvian men of the lighter shade assumed I would be easy to take home and often disrespected me. Peruvian men of the darker shade bought me drinks, told me jokes, taught me how to dance salsa, and never asked for more. As far as women are concerned, I found it difficult to connect with women, but when I had the opportunity to stay in a place for an extended period of time, I was able to talk to women (usually indigenous), and after a conversation or two they opened up and talked to me about their lives and their experiences or just made simple conversation. I know that most of the skepticism stems from my country of origin and the rest from my complexion. I know, because some of them told me.

Alone but never lonely I traveled through many parts of a beautiful country; I met a lot of people, some pleasant others unpleasant. Sometimes more open than others to new experiences, I met kind-hearted people who made me feel welcome. Guarding myself from vulnerability I encountered numerous people who have yet to question their way of thinking, their (self-) hatred, self-righteousness, and desires. Yet here I am.

*All quotes from Audre Lorde.*

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